Winning D&D

July 24, 2010

You know who’s got it easy? Video game designers (yeah, I’m talking video games again). They can churn out worthless, frustrating garbage, dump it on the market and be done with it. If a player buys the game and doesn’t enjoy it, who cares? The game was already paid for. They don’t have to keep balancing challenge, frustration, and fun week after week, like I do, to keep the players coming back. Okay, maybe the creators of those insipid MMORPGs, but shut up; I’m trying to make a point.

On top of that, video game designers don’t have to look the players in the eye everytime the player loses. They don’t have to deal with the disgusting puppy-dog eyes or the incessant whining or the accusations of being unfair, unsympathetic, and a godless sadist. And really, guys, I wish you would stop saying that. Those things hurt.

Maybe I am oversimplifying and maybe I am a little bitter. A few weeks ago, I had to tell a group of so-called friends that their latest TPK while on a world-saving quest had resulted not just in their own demise, but in the death of several gods and the destruction of their entire homeworld. Game over. No continues. No save files. :But look on the bright side,” I said, “at least you beat the rush at the Raven Queen’s Palace.” Anyway, now we’re taking a month off for character generation and world building.

I bring this up because recently I made a few controversial statements on Twitter (follow me so you can earn my ire by disagreeing with me on a regular basis; I’m @TheAngryDM). Actually, this isn’t very surprising. I make controversial remarks on Twitter all the time, ranging from the proper way to make D&D players cry to the benefits of an all kitten-meat diet. But, in this particular instance, I didn’t realize I was being controversial. So, now its time for what I suspect will become a recurring activity for me: trying to expand 140 characters of sarcastic bile into something that sounds clear, rational, and level-headed.

The offending remarks (there were several) can be paraphrased thusly: Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition is winnable, competitive, and adversarial by design and DMs should not try to prioritize making the game fun for every player at every moment. I also mentioned that I consider D&D to be a team sport, but I plan to discuss that in a seperate article.

Okay, I can understand how those remarks might come off as treasonous in a 140 character statement with no real explanation and normally, I wouldn’t bother to get into a heated debate about ‘style’ because thats a very personal thing. But I think the discussion of D&D as an adversarial and ultimately winnable game is very valuable whether you ultimately agree or disagree. I am going to go so far as to say that every DM, experienced or not, must consider whether their game is winnable or not because it will have a lot of bearing on their DMing style and their players’ enjoyment of the game.

Two Caveats

Before I start trying to justify the terrible things I’ve said, I want to throw two warnings out to any readers who are still reading with open minds instead of simply going down to the comment section to begin disagreeing with me on the basis of my introduction. First, I am suggesting that D&D 4th Edition appears designed to be a winnable game and to set up an adversarial relationship between the DMs and the players. I am not saying that this is the only way to play it and that, by not playing D&D this way, you are not really playing D&D. I am trying to tease out the design intent. Or the experience fresh out of the box.

Second, I realize that there is no one right way to play D&D and that different players and different tables will have different tastes. I am not saying that this is the only right way to play. However, the people who often feel the need to remind me of this usually forget that there are many, many wrong ways to play D&D. For example, a player acting in such a way as to make everyone else at the table miserable? Wrong. Running the game in a way that ignores the players’ tastes and desires? Very wrong. Not running the game the way I tell you that you should? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Also, if you already disagree with me and can’t take being called a sissy, you should probably stop reading and proceed to posting your hate-filled comment. Go right ahead, I promise I won’t delete it. Of course, if you can’t take being called a sissy, it pretty much proves my point, doesn’t it?

Fun and Winning

As a result of my vocal pronouncements on Twitter, several people chose to remind that “the only way to win D&D is if everyone has fun and keeps coming back!” Because I don’t want to sound confrontational, I am going to censor myself and simply respond: “I decline the invitation to share in your delusion, but thank you.” If you find that too harsh and impolite, you shouldn’t be striking up a conversation with a guy with the word Angry in his name.

In all seriousness, I really don’t see that as a valid definition of winning a game. Of course everyone should have fun. We play games to have fun and if we don’t have fun, we don’t play the game. Fun is not the same as victory. Consider a board game like Settlers of Catan. Only one player can ultimately win the game, but presumably, everyone playing is enjoying themselves. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be playing. Alternatively, consider Monopoly. You can win at Monopoly, but no one could actually have fun with that protracted excerise in random chance, fiscal management, and unsubtle parody of the capitalist free market system.

And while I will never equate fun with winning (as in: if you had fun, you won), I will say that the ability to win at something is a part of the fun of playing. Humans are competitive by nature and we like to test ourselves against other people or external challenges. And we will accept a lot of frustration providing there is some progress toward a victory. Of course, when there is too much frustration or not enough progress, we get annoyed (too hard) and when there is too much progress and not enough frustration, we get bored (too easy). With the right mix of challenge and progress, people will keep coming back and trying to win.

Defining Fun: Enjoyment and Satisfaction

As I said above, I think there is a very important consideration that must be made by every DM running a game and it is one that rarely gets explictly spoken about. It is just something that gets blundered into eventually. But before I discuss that, I want to define two terms just to avoid any confusion, two different types of fun that are worth looking at.

I am going to use the word ‘enjoyment’ to refer to momentary, instanteous fun. In D&D, rolling a critical hit, downing a monster, succeeding at a skill check, or discovering a magical item are all ‘enjoyable’ activities. They are fun when they happen, but the fun is done with by the time the next action or scene starts. Likewise, missing on an attack, failing a skill check, or missing a round due to being below 0 HP or because you are stunned are all ‘not enjoyable.’ While they are happening, they aren’t fun for the player they are happening to. But they only briefly detract from the fun and are, once again, forgotten as soon as the next enjoyable moment comes along.

I am going to use the word ‘satisfaction’ to refer to big-picture sort of fun. This is the fun of the entire game experience, taken as a whole. Do I want to keep coming back for more? Am I invested in the story and the events of the game? Do I care about the outcome? If so, I am satisfied.

Have you ever asked someone whether a movie was good and had them say “well, it had its moments?” They are usually saying that there were enjoyable parts but the movie, as a whole, was unsatisfying. Maybe some of the jokes were worth a chuckle or some of the action sequences were good, but they wouldn’t pay to see the whole movie again. That is how I am going to be using enjoyable and satisfying.

So, Is D&D Winnable?

Interestingly, many role-playing game rule books take the time to discuss the question of winning the game. There is usually a little sidebar early in the first chapter (“How the Heck Does This Role-Playing Game Thing Work?”)  about how one might win the game. It will usually offer such gems as “there is no one way to win” or “its a game everyone wins just by playing” or “this isn’t the kind of game you can win” or “you decide.” Its almost as if the books (and the designers) are embarassed to talk about winning or aren’t sure whether its appropriate. Strangely, those books that say “you decide” are the closest to the truth.

There is a reason for this. You see, people often forget that D&D (and other RPGs) is not actually a games by itself. It is a gaming kit or gaming system. You can’t just open the book and start playing. Someone has to learn all of the rules and get browbeaten into being the DM. Then, that person has to design an adventure (or buy one or download one) while everyone else gets to have fun making characters. The adventure (or campaign) is the actual game. D&D is just the operating system.

But D&D also seems to assume that the DM will run a winnable game and, from my experience, many DMs do just that. When the DM opens the DMG, he is advised to come up with a goal or quest to start off with and then to design a hook, a scene at the beginning that presents the quest to the players. For example, a new DM might come up with this:

The party is asked by the chancellor to rescue a beautiful dragon from the evil princess. The evil princess intends to sacrifice the virgin dragon to her dark gods under the dark of the new moon. The party must assemble clues to locate the evil princess’ dream castle, travel there, defeat her unicorn guards, and disrupt the ritual before it is completed.

Of course, that scenario is a well-designed seed for an adventure. It has a good mix of encounters (investigation, travel, combat, stealth perhaps), a sense of urgency (a time limit), and a solid climax (that might mix combat with a skill challenge). This is the sort of thing that DMG describes as a good adventure.

It is also a winnable game. If the party manages to defeat the princess before she sacrifices the dragon, they win. If the party fails, they lose. If the party dies, they fail and therefore also lose. Now, you can argue the semantics of whether it is the characters that win or the players, but if you feel you need to do that, I’d first encourage you to ask some players whether they would call it a win after beating this scenario.

But there is a way in which a DM can throw a monkey wrench into this whole shebang and take the winning out of D&D. I’m going to illustrate by comparing two hypothetical DMs and their approaches to writing and running the above described scenario. I shall name them Angry DM and Sissy DM.

Angry DM decides that the ritual will occur in 48 hours. He first designs the investigation skill challenge such that it can’t really fail, but every check requires one hour of time. In that way, failures add up simply by running out the clock. He then designs the traveling skill challenge. Each failure drops the party into a combat or hazard that eats up resources, possibly forcing them to take an extended rest and eating up more time. Infiltrating the dream castle is a combination of stealth skill challenge and combat. Each failure results in a combat and also increases the difficulty of the skill challenge as the place goes on higher and higher alert. If the party loses a combat encounter in the castle, they are imprisoned and can attempt to break out. That puts them back into sneaking through the castle, but may then eat up more time. If the party reaches the princess before she starts the ritual, they can defeat her. If they reach her after the ritual has started, but before it has concluded two hours later, they can try to disrupt the ritual while fighting off her unicorn guards. If they are too late, the dragon is slain and the princess, having gained terrible power, has left the castle to put the next phase of her beautifully evil plan into operation.

Angry DM has a good adventure by DMG standards. There is a variety of encounters and events. Failures make the adventure harder or present difficult choices. There are meaningful choices to be made, such as how to investigate during the investigation skill challenge or whether the party can risk resting after taking too much damage in the forest or whether to sneak into the castle or kick in the doors and start killing. There is also, however, a point of no return. After the ritual is over, the adventure has failed. Nothing the party does at that point will change it. They’ve lost. Of course, they might decide to pursue the princess (starting a new adventure), but they’ve lost this adventure.

Now, consider Sissy DM. He does everything almost the exact same way except that he knows that the beautiful dragon is an important ally that will figure in future adventures and he wants the party to burst in during the ritual to get the best possible climax – disrupting the ritual while fighting. He is also afraid to kill PCs. So, during the early skill challenges, he is very vague about the passage of time and he is also vague about the calendar. The party never knows how much time they have and Sissy DM can manipulate events to ensure they arrive during the climax of the ritual. Sissy DM also fudges some dice rolls when things start to go bad during one of the traveling combats and again during the final confrontation because it looks like the party is about to lose. In short, Sissy DM has removed any chance that the party might fail.

The problem is that if you can’t lose, you can’t win. Sissy DM has decided that his game is not the sort you can win or lose. It is all about the story and the manipulation of events to keep the drama high without any actual risk. And honestly, that style of play is just fine if it is what you want to do and if it is what your players want.

Now, Sissy DM is an extreme example, but many DMs bring some of this philosophy to the table, often consciously but sometimes subconsciously. And, again, it is perfectly reasonable to play the game this way, as long as the entire group is on board with the idea. However, the moment Sissy DM starts running his game this way without considering what his players want, he becomes wrong.

And yet, few DMs discuss the idea of being able to win or lose with their players, instead choosing to assume that players don’t like the idea of losing. Meanwhile, players who have read the rule books usually operate under the assumption that they can lose encounters, adventures, and even campaigns. And they might prefer this.

But Sissy DM often operates in secret, working behind the screen to fudge die rolls, adjust encounters, and manipulate the game so that the party can’t really lose. This, to me, is highly suspect. It means that Sissy DM realizes that the players would probably object if the DM rolled a crit right in front of them and then announced “it looked like a crit, but the monster fumbled at the last possible moment and didn’t kill your character.” So cleary, Sissy DM understand the value of risk, challenge, and tension and want to maintain the illusion. He creates a smoke-and-mirrors game in which everything is safety padded and all of the monsters are armed with safety scissors and Nerf crossbows.

Now, I am not condemning the style choice that Sissy DM has made. Its a completely valid way to play provided that it is (a) a conscious choice and (b) the players agree to play that way. If the DM is doing it in secret and suspects that the party would object if he did openly, then I’m condemning him. Call it the social contract, if you absolutely must use that phrase, buut I think it is more about honesty and trust. Those are important. If a DM starts throwing up illusions and misdirections and the players see through them, there will be a problem. They might feel cheated of all of their past victories, they might demand an adjustment of play style, or they might simply start to take advantage of it knowing that nothing carries any real risk. The game will degenerate in any case and possibly just fall apart.

The point is that each DM should take some time to decide whether to be an Angry DM or a Sissy DM (I should sell buttons) and to discuss the choice with their players. They certainly shouldn’t just assume that all players want Sissy DMs, especially because the rules seem to tell the players to expect an Angry DM.

And if you don’t believe me that the game system implies an Angry DM, consider the rules for rolling dice to determine outcomes, the rules for tracking hit points and death, the explicit rules for ressurection, and the cost for ressurection as compared to the ready cash available through treasure parcels. Challenge, tension, death, and loss are part of the game as written.

How Loseable is the Game

Assuming I’ve convinced you, the DM, to think about the question and to discuss it with your players instead of trying to work in secret, the next step is to decide (as a group) how much the party can lose. If the party is sent to rescue the dragon from the evil princess, will you allow them to be too late? If a character is reduced to 0 HP, will you allow them to die? If the party can’t afford (or doesn’t want to pay for) ressurection, will you find a way to make it happen anyway? If the whole party is reduced to 0 HP, will you allow a TPK? If the party is a group of chosen ones on a quest to save the world, will you allow them to fail and blow up the world?

Unlike above, though, where I obviously prefer an Angry approach because most of the players I’ve run for prefer it, here I am going to remain silent. It is up to every group to decide how much is at stake and ultimately, to trust the DM to wing it based on their preferences when it isn’t clear. Of course, winging it isn’t the same as doing it in secret. It assumes that the DM has taken the time to understand how the players feel on the general issue and considered that in deciding how to handle a specific situation that crops up.

Unleashing Your Anger: The Adversarial DM

If I’ve gotten you, the DM, to think about and discuss this issue with your players, then I feel I have done my job and you can stop reading now and have the conversation. But some of you may have some startling revelations coming and others might simply be curious about the next step. In that case, I am going to offer some insight into my own style of Angry DMing. I fully admit that there are some who consider me a bit hardcore, so I encourage you to try and find your own style before you try to emulate mine.

Basically, as an Angry DM, I feel duty bound to challenge my players without pulling any punches, and I am willing to let them lose when they lose. I refer to this approach as Adversarial DMing because, at certain points during the game (particularly during combat), I have accept the fact that I am playing against the players. As an adversarial DM, I keep just two rules in mind:

  1. Never Aim At Something You Aren’t Prepared to Kill (The Gun Safety Rule)
  2. Build Fair, Play to Win (The Two Hats Rule)

The first rule reminds me that if my story or adventure endangers a person, place, or thing, I have to prepared to actually destroy that person, place, or thing. If I ask the party to protect an important NPC, I had better be prepared to deal with a world without that NPC. If I threaten the Town of Villageburg, I had better have a map ready with a clearly labeled Crater of Villageburg. As I mentioned above, I recently pointed my DMing gun at the entire world I had created and was forced to pull the trigger by a series of unrecoverable errors. I did it in the heroic tier, too. A lot of planning went down the drain. I realize that might sound harsh, but eventually, you will be forced to pull the trigger because the party might not make it in time or might not survive the adventure. If you don’t want your campaign to end, you need to be ready to move on after the smoke clears. The reason I lost a campaign world was that I forgot my first rule in a big, big way.

The second rule is a bit more complicated, despite the fact that it seems so simple on the surface. When I am building a world or writing an adventure or constructing an encounter or skill challenge, my job is to make it fair: challenging but winnable without being overwhelming. Fortunately, all of the rules in the DMG and the DMG2 are there to allow DMs to do just that. It is not fair, for example, to ask a 5th level party to take on five 9th level encounters in a row; but it is fair to ask them to handle one. It is not fair to set the DCs for a skill challenge ridiculously high.

When I am wearing my game building hat, this is when I adjust difficulties and ensure that the party is evenly matched to the challenges. Perhaps my tactical party is very skilled and doesn’t blink at encounters equal to their level. At that point, I decide to set the encounters a little higher. Perhaps my party has very low skills or is overspecialized. So I decide to adjust the skill DCs for my skill challenge a little lower.

However, when I am running the game, I take off the world-building hat. Whatever I have written or designed is set in stone and it is up to me to run it. When a combat starts, it is my job to do everything in my power to win the encounter. If I’ve done my job correctly, its very unlikely that I will win the encounter and, if I find myself winning too many encounters, I stick a note in my game-building hat to look at that. But during the fight, I run what I’ve written, try to win, and obey all of the rules.

This does not mean that I am always gunning for TPKs. The subtle added benefit of the wording of the second rule is that I am trying to win, not to kill. And each group of monsters will have its own definition of winning. If the party storms a goblin lair and attacks, the goblins aren’t fighting to kill. They are trying to defend themselves and drive the PCs out. They won’t stop to slit the throats of the fallen until after the PCs have been routed. If the PCs retreat, the goblins probably won’t follow.

If the same goblins attack a caravan to steal something, they probably won’t fight to the death. If the fight goes against them, they will flee. They might grab a few things from the caravan or grab the artifact they are after, but winning has nothing to do with killing PCs.

An owlbear or lurker might be trying to drop one PC and drag him away to eat. It will try to escape with its food, but it will give up the food rather than risk being too injured.

A mind flayer will think nothing of sacrificing his mind-controlled thralls to kill the PCs, but he will flee when his own life is in danger and the thralls will probably scramble the moment the mind flayer is out of the picture.

So, while the second rule tells me that I have to play to win, it also tells me that I have to consider what winning means when I design the encounter.

These two rules only work, of course, because my players know I follow them. They know, for instance, that I am not going to save their bacon or adjust an encounter (even a too-hard encounter) at the table. They are responsible for recognizing that they are in trouble and getting out of dodge.

Enjoyable vs. Satisfying and the Adversarial DM

There remains little to be said at this point. At the very least, I hope I’ve convinced you to consider whether your D&D game is winnable and talked it over with your party. I just want to briefly return to the idea of the different types of fun and recognize the hardships of being an Adversarial DM.

You see, I realize that it can be very hard to sit across the table from your friends and announce their beloved character is dead and that they failed to rescue another beloved character’s mother from a terrible princess. It is also hard to watch a scene in which a player must, in character, explain that it was the party’s fault that the princess gained her powerful magic because they had a chance to stop her and failed. Its hard to tell someone they have to sit out this round because their character is stunned. I mean, it isn’t hard for me, specifically. But I have seen pain and frustration on the faces of my players and I know that people with actual human emotions might feel guilty.

The fact is that in order to create a challenging (ultimately satisfying) winnable game, a DM has to be willing to occasionally trample on the toes of enjoyment because many of the things that create satisfaction ruin enjoyment. The best combats, the ones that end with the party cheering and high-fiving, are the ones in which all seemed lost until someone spent just the right daily or got the right lucky roll. The best skill challenges are the ones that succeeded after two failures. These are the things that people remember. A single crit, a bad combat in which your character spent the entire fight stuck in a pit unable to make an Athletics check, these things are things of enjoyment and quickly get forgotten.

I can’t sugarcoat this: sometimes, being a DM is emotionally hard and not everyone can handle that. And I think that is part of the reason why some DMs secretly fudge and adjust and decide to take some of the risk away. But, ultimately, being willing to hurt your players’ enjoyment once in a while contributes to a game that is immersive and satisfying, one which the players really care about and feel challenged by.

It is interesting that the discussion that lead to me claiming that D&D was winnable and adversarial began with two fellow Twitter folks (@AlioTheFool and @DMSamuel) discussing the removal of some of the worst conditions in D&D, 4E: stunned and dominated. @AlioTheFool had come from one of his recent D&D games feeling badly because he had stunned a player’s character for several rounds and the guy was basically out of the game for forty minutes. I am glad, now, that I seem to have returned to the topic of momentary enjoyment vs. long-term satisfaction and the importance of prioritizing satisfaction before enjoyment.

@AlioTheFool, I know how you feel. Hypothetically, I mean. Because I really don’t. I hate players.

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53 Responses to Winning D&D

  1. AlioTheFool on July 24, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    Wow, I am a Sissy DM. Well, I still don’t like the Stunned condition, but you’ve opened my eyes a bit. I need to stop flubbing rolls and giving my players “get out of jail free” cards. I still don’t know how I’ll handle Stunned, but otherwise in my game, the kiddie gloves are coming off.

  2. Machpants on July 24, 2010 at 11:21 pm

    I agree with you here, although I may not play the same style in every game. One thing you didn’t mention is playing the adversaries accurately. yes you take into account their aim but you also need to take into account their intelligence and/or knowledge of combat. A charging animal intelligence creature may not be savvy enough to avoid OAs, for example.

    So rule 2: Build Fair, Play Authentically, Play to Win (The Two Hats Rule)

  3. Machpants on July 24, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Oh and at AtF, you can still be an angry DM and NOT like the stunned condition IMO. Remove it from your game and still follow the 2 rules = angry DM of house-ruled 4E :-)

  4. pdunwin on July 25, 2010 at 12:46 am

    Thanks. Well-written and fun to read. I don’t fudge dice rolls, but I do fudge tactics because I like to enable play ideas and not pull the rug out from under them. I’ve been meaning to ask them how they feel about this and this post will help me finally do that.

  5. ArmchairDM on July 25, 2010 at 2:36 am

    Interesting thoughts. The key is having a social contract. If players have one set of expectations of what kind of DM they have it can be problematic if he is actually the other kind, or a mutant hybrid of both.

    Of course a Sissy DM who poses as an a gray one is less disruptive than the converse, which is a wolf-in-she eps-clothing kinda thing

  6. ArmchairDM on July 25, 2010 at 2:39 am

    Apologize for the iPadization of “angry” as “a gray”.

    Armchair DMs never have to worry about player social contracts….

  7. CaptCalamitous on July 25, 2010 at 3:25 am

    An interesting discussion, personally I fall into the angry DM camp, however, I also run lfr games in the UK and during those games you will get a disparity in gaming styles, wants and needs.

    I try to balance the game with regards to threat/reward but a lot of times the encounter is just not built with the rules above in mind. Interestingly I have had complaints when the creatures from one encounter run off to join the next lot just along the hall. My response is “tactically” it made sense and most people get it, some whine, I do feel that some players in lfr feel it’s ALL about the pcs winning all the time.

    I guess I shall just carry on bringing death to those who didn’t think it was a serious option.

  8. Derik M on July 25, 2010 at 4:24 am

    Very interesting read AngryDM… are you going to be at GenCon?

  9. Ghostwoods on July 25, 2010 at 7:46 am

    Goddamn it, where’s my hate-filled bile? I was promised hate-filled bile!

    Damn you and your sensible, thought-provoking posts, Scott.

  10. Derik M on July 25, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    I’m also curious AngryDM, in your post about setting PCs up to fail you mention that the standard “sandbox” game where the PCs can, in theory, go anywhere and get themselves killed is not a problem because “you don’t run your games that way.”

    What is the general style of your games? Are they very linear, story orientated games? Just with the real chance of failing?

  11. Anthony on July 26, 2010 at 10:12 am

    Well done post, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Currently, one of the games I’m running is going by the ‘Sissy DM’ status, but at the beginning of the game everyone agreed to try and make a game that felt like a fantasy novel. it’s working out well, and the players know I will pull the trigger on them if they’re ungodly stupid, but at the same time I do give them some outs in the gist of it being more ‘story’ than game.

    I am looking forward to going back to my other playstyle though, perhaps not as angry as yours but still there.

    I do like your two rules on GMing there though, I use something similar to your second rule. Namely, “The GMs job is to play the opponents as the opponents, trying to win as hard as they can against whatever opposition they face. That doesn’t mean the GM shouldn’t be hoping the PCs do win in the end”.

  12. Anthony on July 26, 2010 at 10:44 am

    Oh, I meant to say above but forgot to. I disagree with your statement that what you do is adversarial GMing. You are not making the game GM versus Player, you are simply playing the bad guys fairly (meaning they actually try for their objectives.)

    You’ve never stated a GM win condition. An opponent’s one? maybe. But the GM themselves, from what you are saying, does not win when the players lose. There is a fine line here, and you are treading it yes, but the difference (to me) is distinct.

    There is a chance for them to lose. You are not going to pull punches in the fight. However, you are not head hunting, you are making the encounters as fair as possible, and are adjusting encounters (between sessions) to fit that mold. You’re not being an adversary, you’re being fair and going for a tense but fun game. When the players win, they have not beaten you, they have beaten the scenario or the monsters. When they lose, they have not lost to you, they lost to the monsters or the scenario. The difference is distinct, and if you’ve played with a truly adversarial GM, trust me you’ll know the difference.

  13. RTGoodman on July 26, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    Very interesting article. I fall somewhere in the middle between Angry and Sissy – I’m usually closer to Angry, but I will fudge rolls and things like that in UNIMPORTANT encounters. I give my PCs ample opportunity to lose or die, but only when it would matter – I hate nothing more than for a PC to die to a lucky arrow in a random encounter.

    Also, I particularly like the section of the article where you discuss the difference between gunning for a TPK and gunning for a “win.” As you say, not all creatures are like, well, my PCs, killing everything that stands against them indiscriminately; more likely, the enemies will knock the PCs out (and maybe rob them), leave them for dead, drive them off, kidnap them, or something else.

  14. The Angry DM on July 26, 2010 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks for weighing in, all. I am glad to see no one took the sissy designation too seriously.

    Mach: I don’t really think its worth getting bogged down in considerations of how intelligent a creature has to be. A well-designed creature (custom or one from the books) brings a lot of its own personality to game play simply by way of powers (wolves work in packs, centipedes scuttle all over one another, etc). I do think its a bit simplistic to say animals are not smart enough to avoid opportunity attacks. Watch a couple of dogs or cats fight and they show their awareness of the idea of opportunity attacks in the way they stay just out of reach of another and the fact that they turn away from each other. But honestly, that’s an entire different debate.

    Armchair: Thanks for stopping in. Yes, the social contract is key, in my opinion. A Sissy in Angry Clothing is probably less potentially disruptive, like you say, but it can still cause a lot of problems when the cat is out of the bag. In one of the old D&D Podcasts, Dave Noonan discussed the mistake of revealing to his players that he had fudged dice rolls and ended up with a disappointed bunch of people who had no faith in their victories.

    Capt: Creatures joining other fights is a tricky issue. While I agree and it is something I have occasionally done (along with having creatures call other encounters to their aid), it can lead to a rapid increase in difficulty if it occurs several times in a row and you’re already building encounters to increase in difficulty as the adventure continues. When I have done it, I have always telegraphed it by having the monsters somehow communicate their intentions. The result is that the smart party shifts its tactics to stop or silence the runner and it actually makes a nice mid-battle shift in tactics and dynamics that can keep a long fight from getting stale. If the creature still manages to get away and join or summon others, the party had fair warning and a chance to respond accordingly and that should silence their complaints.

    Derik: Unfortunately, I will not be attending Gen Con. I wish I could, but its not just feasible right now.

    RT (et al, really): Whatever you, as the DM, decide is a valid answer to the question of winnability is just fine, as long as your players have bought into it. My real point was just to convince people to think about the question AND not to dismiss the idea of winning in D&D, despite what the rule books might say. I think that its reasonable to treat unimportant encounters as resource drains rather than true tests of survival, where victory is assured and the question is how well the party wins. There is nothing more ignoble than heading off to fight Vazuriel, the Green Dragon, only to get eaten by a crocodile the moment you enter its swampy territory and some players definitely would chaffe at that idea and, if it happened too often, get tired of the game.

  15. The Angry DM on July 26, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    Anthony: I realize that, in the traditional sense, it is not adversarial. The DM is not the enemy. However, at the same time, it is adversarial in that the DM is not there to be a facilitator of victory. The DM, both as world builder and portrayer of enemies, is there to throw obstacles between the PCs and the goal. It is up to the PCs to acheive their own victory. The game system (and to some extent, the fair DM) provides checks and balances to ensure victory is possible. In that sense, I think Adversarial is a fair description.

    That being said, I will confess that I often play up the competitive aspect. That is, just like a player, I curse my own bad die rolls and cheer for my crits. I’ve found that, although it is a little 4th-wall-breaking, it actually improves the roleplaying mood at the table. It helps the players feel that they are struggling against the monsters, to gel as a team, and to gun for victory. Of course, our combats have roleplaying, combat banter, and the like as well, but even the most in-character table has those moments when someone cheers a good roll, decries a bad one, or just generally steps out of character to whoop it up. And I do it for the monsters.

    Of course, my players know I truly don’t want a TPK any more than they do (it really screws up a campaign) and that I want to see them win. But I do enjoy seeing them sweat a little.

    As you’ve already recognized, I don’t see any sort of DM win condition (okay, sometimes, when I manage to kill a character with an average encounter, I put a little notch in my DM screen). The DM’s only option, to get the thrill of victory, is to share in the players’ (or celebrate the TPKs). I think it is very telling that the titles are ‘player’ and ‘game master’ because that really shows that the DM isn’t really playing the game at all. This is also why I say there is a difference between ‘victory’ and ‘fun.’ The DM obviously must find fun in being a DM, but the DM cannot win the game.

    As to why the DM participates at all, that is a question every DM must answer for himself.

  16. A “Small” Problem « This is My Game on July 28, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    […] 3 Imp Assassins that will face the 5-member level 5 party. Why only 3? Am I being a Sissy DM, as @TheAngryDM would say? Actually, no. My “Bargle’s Manor” is a mid-heroic tier attempt at being a Tomb of […]

  17. James on July 30, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    A few weeks ago my beloved halfling assassin died in battle with giant tarantulas. Even though it was an awful experience for me at the time, it was actually great for the game as a whole, because it made the experience seem very “real” to everyone, that this adventure really was risky, and being reminded of the characters mortality raised the stakes for everyone. Plus they got to chew plenty of scenery during my eulogy, I got to point out the bittersweet irony of how my character, who had lived by delivering ongoing poison damage, died from ongoing poison damage. Then I got to make a new character.

    I agree that when a DM fudges die rolls and protects the characters from the consequences of their decisions, he takes away a lot of the excitement and sense of adventure from the game. Without real risk, the rewards aren’t real either.

    However, I don’t think it a good idea to make the characters “The Chosen Ones,” at least not until the final battle. That way, if and when there is a TPK, you don’t have to pull the plug on the whole campaign, they can just start again with new characters. And you get to humble them by altering the campaign world with the consequences of the previous groups failures, while giving the world a greater sense of continuity and detail at he same time.

  18. The Angry DM on July 31, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    @James, Re: Chosen Ones – yep, live and learn. DMing is an amazing experience because, after over 20 years of doing it, you can still make a huge, obvious, campaign breaking mistake.

  19. Bryan on August 2, 2010 at 10:33 pm

    When I start up my campaign I am going to talk with my players and explain that I am going to use “The Angry DM” philosophy. I do think that knowing death is possible adds more intrigue to the game and can make it more enjoyable.

    I do have a question though, if a player happens to die in a way that they can not be resurrected, do you allow them to create a new character of the same level? Obviously, if the party is 7th level, it will be crazy to have a 1st level character adventuring with them. And conversely, having the player create a new character of the same level does take some of the sting of losing their character.

    Another great post!

  20. The Angry DM on August 2, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    Great question, Bryan. Obviously, like everything else, that is for the table to decide. But, if you want my opinion (which is the correct one), here it is:

    Although I say losing (and death) should be possible within the game, I don’t think there is a reason to add any “sting” to death. There are a couple of reasons. Obviously, there is a convenience factor – 4E works best when the party is at the same level. Each character, after all, fills a role. Consider a defender that is a few levels below the rest of the party. In a balanced encounter for the rest of the party, that defender can’t be a defender at all for very long. Your experience may vary, depending on the system you are using, but its just best if the characters stay at the same level.

    Beyond that, though, consider what happens when a PC dies. First, that player is out of the game. They might just be out of the game for a few minutes while they create a new character, but, depending on how the story is proceeding, they could be out of the game for a while as the DM finds a convenient place to insert the new character. In addition, unless the character was only 1st or 2nd level, the player may be pretty attached to the character. At the very least, there was a time commitment to playing and developing that character that is just gone now. Some people are more attached to their characters than others, of course, but most players will feel at least some of the “sting” of losing their character.

    Consider also what happens to the party. They are now down a member, at least for the moment. If they are in hostile territory, they face a very dangerous situation. And, if they are under a time constraint, they may be forced to make a difficult choice (proceed despite having lost a member or return to a safe zone and try to fill their ranks, possibly missing the deadline of the quest).

    However you look at it, a PC death is pretty significant whether the PC can be raised from the dead or not, as well it should be. The death will have consequences to that player and to the party and will probably somehow how the course of the adventure. Given that, I don’t really see what benefit there is to adding any ‘sting’ in the form of a mechanical punishment.

    To look at it another way: I noted that winning is not part of the “game system”, its part of the story of the game that is added by the DM (or the adventure or the campaign). Likewise, losing shouldn’t be part of the “game system.” Winning an adventure (rescuing the dragon from the princess) is primarily about the
    thrill of victory, the good feeling the players get when they win. Likewise, losing an adventure (the dragon gets sacrificed) carries a sting in that the players know they could have won, but they didn’t, and losing feels bad enough. Ultimately, winning and losing are just outcomes, and they are rewards and punishments in and of themselves.

    If you truly must bring a mechanical penalty into the game for losing, try this out. Flavor wise, I call it “Figuring Out the Team Dynamic.” Whenever a team welcomes a new member into the fold, whether the team is made of athletes, adventurers, or rescue workers, there is an initial period in which the new member has to figure out how the team works. The rest of the team has been working together for a while. They’ve learned how the others think and they’ve developed a short-hand for communicating. They work well together. The new member needs to adjust to the team’s way of doing things and communicating. But, because a team of adventurers functions in a pretty stressful work environment, the acclimation is neccessarily pretty quick and the rest of the team will work hard to get him up to speed as quickly as possible.

    So, in a situation in which a PC dies and a new PC is brought in to replace him, apply the Raise Dead penalty anyway. That is, the new member suffers a -1 penalty to all attacks, skill checks, and saving throws until he has reached three milestones with the team. But otherwise, he starts at the same level as the rest of the party with all of the standard starting equipment entitled to a PC starting at a higher level.

    I think this is safe because it is the same ‘punishment’ a character suffers for dying when the corpse is recoverable. Its also not terribly severe, but it lasts a while and it is a reminder of the ‘loss.’

    I hope that helps.

  21. 3 Player Monty | Wastex Games on August 4, 2010 at 10:07 am

    […] to use their healing powers and recharge before the next day’s difficulties. This could be a “Sissy DM” way of looking at encounter building, but one character dropped in a 3PP suddenly sinks player […]

  22. Colmarr on August 10, 2010 at 12:05 am

    You should call yourself AngryandwordyDM :P

    I understand your approach, but I’m not sure I agree with your conclusions, particularly your statement that D&D is “winnable, competitive and adversarial by design”.

    In most cases, D&D is at its heart a storytelling game. While the content of the story may be adversarial, that is not the same as saying the game itself is adversarial.

    I’m struggling to enunciate why, so I’ll use an analogy instead.

    I was a big fan of the old Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure type books when I was a teenager. It was possible for your character to die in those books, and I did so frequently.

    However, the goal of the books was to experience a story. If I reached the best conclusion of that story, I might have “beaten the book”, but I didn’t beat the author. Because his goal wasn’t to kill my character. If it was, page number 1 would have read “You die.”

    D&D is the same. Unless your DM is excessively adversarial, there is no one for the players to beat, and accordingly they can’t “win”. Conversely, there is no one against whom they are competing, so they can’t “lose”.

    You’ll notice that I said “in most cases” earlier, and I did so deliberately. There can be cases where D&D is winnable, competitive and adversarial. But they generally require an impartial play structure (such as a pre-written module), a ruthless DM willing to ignore game-assumptions (such as “one encounter at a time”), and a social contract that that’s what’s going to happen.

    • The Angry DM on August 10, 2010 at 9:25 am

      Yeah, I’m wordy. I’ll try not to be. But you took the time to think out a well-reasoned comment and you deserve a response, so I make no promises.

      Let’s look at the example of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. What, specifically, did you enjoy about them? I mean, I read them too (as well as the more advanced game books like the Lone Wolf series which had character generation and a combat system and were more like little solo RPGs). Was the point really just to experience a story? Other books let you experience a story. These books let you participate in a story and determine the outcome. But even then, they weren’t a matter of just being interactive fiction. There was an element of victory or defeat. You could lose, you could win, and you wanted to win. At least, I did. And you admit that you can ‘win’ the book, but you also point out that you haven’t beaten the author by winning the book.

      I think the problem that you are having with my argument is being unable to see victory except in terms of beating someone. Likewise, it is possible to have an adversarial relationship without each side trying to beat the other.

      Take any of the many forms of solitaire card games like Klondike or Freecell and play them with real cards. You can win the game, but you really haven’t beaten anyone. Likewise, you can lose. But no one has really beaten you.

      For an example of an adversarial relationship in which one person doesn’t have to beat another, we have to look a little harder. The best example I can think of is the scientific method. Under scientific rigor, ideas and theories are constantly tested and challenged by experiment in an attempt to disprove them. A good scientist has to be extremely hard on a new theory or idea in order to ensure that it is a good theory. If the theory is broken, it must be discarded. Otherwise, it stands up until something else comes along to disprove it. The point here is not for one scientist to beat another, but to seperate the good ideas from the bad. It is a scientists duty to act as an adversary to any new theory or idea because the theory must be able to stand up to it.

      And now we come back to the roleplaying game. I’ve already argued that the game includes the possibility of winning and losing. The players can lose by failing to acheive the objectives in the game and they can win by acheiving those objectives. The idea of beating the DM or the game system never enters into it and when players try to beat the game system, we call that bad behavior (munchkin behavior).

      Like solitaire or a game book, we have a victory/defeat setup without an opponent to beat. And the DM is much like a scientist in that his duty is to oppose the players so that they are challenged and thus feel a true of victory. And, like the scientist, the DM is constrained in how he can challenge the party (the scientist must follow the rules of scientific methodoly, the DM is supposed to follow the system of game balance and obey the rules of the game).

      To look at this from another angle, the DM must wear many hats. The DM is not just the author of a game book, he is also the book itself, and the narrator of the story. In video game terms, he is not just the game’s designer, he is also the game engine, the program itself. We don’t accuse video games of ‘playing to win’ because they aren’t capable of that motive, but the game still opposes the players and the game can still be won or lost.

      D&D is, at its core, an action-based game. The vast majority of the system deals with combat and much of the rest deals with other forms of external conflict resolution. It includes possibilities for failure, loss, and death. Ultimately, the outcomes are random and the best that a player can do is try to improve the odds. Character progression is determined solely by overcoming adversity (experience for combat and skill challenges) and acheiving goals (quest XP). Roleplaying XP is, as it has always been, a tacked on mention that isn’t discussed in great detail. However you look at it, winning is built into the core of the game. This is not true of all RPGs, of course, but I’m talking about D&D.

      You don’t have to play the game this way. No one is going to take your books away. But it is built into the system and, consequently, built into player expectations. After all, it is called a ‘role-playing game’ not a ‘role-playing experience.’

  23. Colmarr on August 10, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    I think the point on which we disagree is that you equate success/failure with winning/losing, whereas I see them as different.

    You can succeed at a combat, an encounter or a skill challenge. You can also fail them. But (at least IMO), the players’ success or failure at the challenge doesn’t mean they have won or lost the game. And even if the failure is in the final showdown with Orcus, the players still haven’t “lost” D&D or even the campaign.

    You are right when you say I am “unable to see [winning] except in terms of beating someone”, because I consider that part and parcel of the concept of winning. Winning, to me, means beating someone else at a common (such as in a race) or competing (such as in chess) goal. Without the opponent determined to beat you, you don’t “win”; you “succeed”.

    Maybe we’re dancing around semantics, but those semantics might play heavily into why the initial twitter was so controversial :)

  24. The Angry DM on August 10, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    That’s fair enough. And I admitted that I was surprised to find that it was as controversial as it was. I expected people to just think for a moment and then say “oh, yeah, I never looked at it that way.” Hence my 4,000 words clarifying.

    Now, I am perfectly happy to dispense with the words ‘win’ and ‘lose’ and accept ‘succeed’ and ‘fail’ if that helps. After all, my point was really about the fact that failure is a possibility in the game as written and a DM should think very carefully about the implications of removing that possibility. And also that the DM should be willing to make temporary enjoyment of the game secondary to long-term satisfaction with the game. Neither of those points is really changed if we call it success and failure instead of winning and losing. So, in this case, I think we are really just dancing around semantics.

    But I will also say that, in the instances when I have the opportunity to play D&D (and other RPGs), success and victory feel the same to me. I’m willing to call that my personal competitive nature.

  25. […] took it out while it chewed on the Cleric, otherwise this would likely have been a TPK. (Yes I went SissyDM again despite calls for AngryDM.) As a result of this the party has retreated and I’ll be having a part 2.5 to the encounters […]

  26. Colmarr on August 10, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    Changing the nomenclature does, I feel, change the discussion, and I don’t think near as many people would have an issue with an assertion that D&D is “something you can succeed or fail at, competitive and adversarial”.

    Now that the semantics are out of the way, I think we see eye-to-eye. You are a scholar and a gentleman, sir.

  27. John on August 21, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    I’ve been an angry GM for a long time, but sometimes I have bouts of sissiness. Thanks for pointing it out. I’m going to have a short talk with my players Monday and warn them, I was fair writing the game, now I’m going to try to kill you with it.

  28. This is My Game » A “Small” Problem on August 23, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    […] 3 Imp Assassins that will face the 5-member level 5 party. Why only 3? Am I being a Sissy DM, as @TheAngryDM would say? Actually, no. My “Bargle’s Manor” is a mid-heroic tier attempt at being a Tomb of […]

  29. Halma on September 13, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    Thinking back over the years of gamming (30 years mind you), and my many forays into DM’ing my friends and family, and after reading this post, I have been hit with the fact that I am a “Sissy DM”. I was shocked to say the least when I first came to the realization, pretty much right after I read your blog here. I was at first mad that I was classified into this category and fought for a few minutes with denial and frustration, but I came to the realization that why do I still need to be this way. My last dm’ing experiences I would try to spin a tail of some sort of doom and destruction and make sure that my PC’s were challenged but when the time came that I was beating the PC’s I started to pull my punches. Often resulting in flubbed dice or a monster died quicker than it should or that the PC’s got a free Intelligence check to see a weakness in the monster. I am now starting to see why some of my DM’ing was left with a crap load of frustration at my PC’s. I was playing at a different style than they were whiling to go. I was playing the Story driven style, and less of a Challenge system style. They were more into the Challenge of the game and that the game was meant to be won. One such player told me that this was a game of Player Vs. DM type and that the players should always strive to win against the DM telling the story, and I had a problem with that. I thought at the time it was more about the Player vs. Story. Where I tell an engaging story and make it so the players have room for RP and encounters, but never feel like they would lose. I tried to run my games like this most of the time. But as my players would often strive to challenge me I felt like they would never respond to serious threats or ever feel like they needed to run away. They knew that I would flub rolls or that they would never lose so they never felt like they needed to run. There wasn’t challenge built into my encounters where a TPK could happen, or as you put it the World would change. Thank you very much for pointing out the differences in styles to me, I guess I never thought of these all that well. Now I have plans in action for my next DM’ing foray to be more challenge based, dropping the Sissy from my DM’ing style.

  30. Jon on September 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    I was fully in agreement with you until the comment about what to do when characters die…

    One of my main gripes with sissy DMs is that, as a player, if I don’t feel there is any risk of death, any real consequences for playing dumb, then I completely lose interest.

    When I have a character, who through luck and cunning, has survived adventure after adventure for years of playing, I feel cheated when someone else loses characters all the time, but keeps coming back with a brand new one just as powerful as mine.

    This makes me sound like a terrible power-gamer, but I’m really not. I play my characters according to their personalities, and one of the worst gaming experiences I’ve had was when my character selflessly threw down his life to save others, and the GM just fudged him back to life – it just cheapens the whole experience.

    Just come across your site BTW and am really enjoying the articles – thanks

  31. Torrinn is dead on October 11, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I enjoy the ADM’s thought-ful perspective. Anytime someone actually takes the time to examine and understand why they do what they do I think they have elevated themselves above the average.

    That said, the choice of the word Sissy does negatively judge someone, even though the ADM says one is fine playing that way. There is definitely a place for someone who just wants to be active in a interesting Story. Calling a Story DM a Sissy says you really do not appreciate running a good story campaign.

    Also, a comment about running a fair fight. If an encounter is truly fair then there is a 50% chance of losing. If losing means someone dies, then the chance that a whole party can make it through 5 such encounters is less than 0.01%. Really, that makes for a worse game of Russian roulette. If you play Russian roulette 6 times with a 6-shooter, isn’t that really just suicide? Truly fair fights mean that it becomes more likely that someone will win the lottery than make it to lvl 3.

    Side note about Jon (the previous poster.) He remarked about how his experience was cheapened because his char didn’t die saving others’ lives. I felt the opposite. I felt sickened because my char died while nobly keeping-alive other characters that joked about how they only had to be faster than 1 of us to survive. They survived through others’ sacrifice not their bravery nor cunning. Team players die faster than non-team players when non-teamers make up half the group.

  32. The Angry DM on October 12, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    Hey Torrinn, thanks for commenting.

    Well, I’m the Angry DM and I give “advice with attitude,” so I won’t apologize for my word choice. Consider the name and the tagline to be disclaimers.

    I don’t call them “Story DMs” because appreciating a story has nothing to do with whether the DM plays Angry or Sissy. First, I run intense, story driven campaigns almost exclusively while remaining an Angry DM. Second, drama is driven by conflict and tension and Sissy DMs inadvertantly remove some of the tension from their game. So I don’t think Sissy DMs appreciate a good story more than Angry DMs and I think, in some cases, they could add drama and tension to their stories by letting players know the risks their characters face are real. Of course, your mileage may vary.

    Let us keep in mind that the game does not set “fair fight” at 50% chance of victory. All editions of D&D are designed so that a balanced encounter is one that isn’t likely to kill the party. 3.5, for instance, was very clear about saying that an average encounter would expend 25% of party resources on average. 4E is designed so that the PCs should win four to six balanced encounters (of varying difficulty) in a day if they manage their resources properly. Yes, it is possible for the party to lose more than 25% of their resources and if it is one character doing all the losing, that character will be dead, but that is where the challenge and uncertainty arises. However, the skewed balance in the system is why I, as a DM, feel safe trusting the “build fair, play to win” mentality. The game system is already protecting the PCs.

    Your last remark (and Jon’s) are problems that arise not because of the game or the style of the DM, but because of a mismatch between the styles and expectations that each player and DM is bringing. Had Jon’s Sissy DM owned up to it, Jon probably would have made a different decision about his character’s noble sacrifice. Likewise, had you realized the other players would not value your sacrifice, you probably wouldn’t have bothered trying to have a noble death. This is why I keep harping on the idea that players and DMs (especially DMs) need to be honest and communicate their styles and intentions. If the DM is secretly behaving one way when the players want something else, that is bad for everyone.

  33. Dungeons & Dragons: versus mode « The D&D Vault on October 22, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    […] I’m sure these questions have been debated since the game was invented. People have come down on both sides of the argument. I have no doubt that there is a nearly endless supply of blog posts on this topic. One of my personal favorites comes from The Angry DM. […]

  34. TPK-Squeamish on December 14, 2010 at 9:44 am

    I read your post and thought, “spot on!” I had just written out my “end of the world” monologue (what would happen if the characters failed) before reading this entry, too, so I felt we were on the same wavelength.

    Naturally, I then almost killed my party in the second encounter of the day. So I am apparently a sissy when it comes to TPKs, much as I wouldn’t like to be. I only bent things slightly, but I still feel terrible about it. That one decision I made, though it might have proven irrelevant, ruins the spirit of the challenge. The party may even believe they just barely scraped by without any bending, though I don’t know and feel I can’t really ask.

    I feel like there should, for lack of a better term, generally be a “save,” a non-lethal immediate alternative, like being taken prisoner, but those alternatives just don’t seem to be there when facing relatively mindless or carnivorous opponents.

    Worse, as a player, I would prefer to die in an encounter rather than have it handed to me. Yet as a DM, I couldn’t seem to do it. I think it’s mostly because it was story-essential yet mindless enemies. It just seems so ignominious, and it was the closest to killing everyone that the campaign had ever come. One of the players even asked, “If we all die, is the campaign over?”

    Ah, I don’t know. A promise to myself to do no bending whatsoever next time seems pretty hollow, too: “Go forth and sin no more.” Maybe I just need more mental preparation before sacking a campaign I’ve sunk so much into. The fact that I have planned for all the way to 30 likely didn’t help, either.

    I’ve only DMed for a little over a year; perhaps I simply need to become more merciless, for the sake of my group and me both.

  35. The Angry DM on January 20, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Anyone who enjoys this should check out Thadeous’ interesting not-quite-counterpoint that is on sort of the same subject. Its a good read.

  36. gaiusbaltar on March 11, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    Re: Enjoyment vs Satisfaction.

    I made this same argument about Warhammer, and the eternal argument over casual vs. competitive gaming. My evidence was the Pittsburgh Pirates vs the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens have sold out every home game since the new arena was built, and were on a magnificent streak of sellouts leading up to the end of the Mellon Arena, while Pirates tickets can be bought for a dollar and PNC park has never been sold out. What’s the difference? Competitive gaming. The Pirates haven’t had a winning season in over 15 years, while the Pens have been Stanley Cup contenders for close to the last 10.

    The terms I used were ‘fun’ vs. ‘exhilaration.’ You can have fun at a Pirates game, but you’ll never be excited. Conclusion: You can certainly have fun without competition, but you can’t have exhilaration.

  37. killphi on March 16, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    First of all, it seems I’m late to the party known as crunchy, well-spoken and insightful essays on the art of DMing. Thank you for that.

    Second, I should probably note that I don’t have any notable experience as a DM. I did a few one-timers within my group, which were well received, but neither was I the “main DM”, nor do we game as much as we used to.

    Anyway, I just wanted to contribute to the idea of the DM “winning” – or succeeding, if the updated semantics are used.

    Success is achieved by reaching a pre-defined goal.

    So let’s say, as a DM, you want to deliver a well-balanced, challenging, rewarding and fun evening.
    This is a pre-defined (in this case by yourself) goal:
    Come the end of the game session, your players will have had fun. So much fun indeed, they will boldly tell their wenches at home the story of how they escaped that nightmare-ish prison cell in the lair of the evil what’s-his-name. Eh, let’s make that last part optional.

    Now you, as a DM, can succeed, too. Or fail.
    It’s either win or lose.

  38. Mitch on March 29, 2011 at 11:29 am

    You have breathed a new life into D&D for me. The variability in DMing style and the silence of the DMG on the subject has always troubled me. I don’t know if your a strict D&Der but I think the game Apocalypse World might float your boat. Its got a built in GMing style thats very similar to your Angry DM style. But its very sandboxy game compared to D&D.

  39. […] Will for helping me finally get it. It was AngryDM’s post about The Peanut Butter Conundrum and Winning D&D that really began my true understanding of the right way to play 4e. It turns out that you […]

  40. […] I think the essence of what I was trying to accomplish shows through most in my articles “Winning D&D” and “Put Away Your Skill […]

  41. […] the source of conflict and challenge so that you can actually win something. That’s right: so you can win D&D. Sure, we could all sit around and tell stories about awesome people never failing to do awesome […]

  42. Jason on August 5, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I started reading this site after reading through your slaughterhouse design example (I like it a lot, it answers a couple of questions I was having in how I was designing the next adventure). I think that tactically, I’ve been playing as a sissy DM without ever fudging a roll (all my rolls happen out in the open). By simply not exploiting the abilities of some of my creatures to the fullest extent possible, I’ve allowed players to slip by. Given that the last encounter was a cakewalk and that the players are starting to have their noobish edges worn off, I think it’s time to move to an angry style.

    And hey, they have enough gold right now to resurrect three party members. Also, as the campaign progresses, they’re going to end up with the Raven Queen owing them a favor. If they make it that far, they get a single save in a TPK. Does this seem like a sissy idea? (I was thinking of not telling the players that the Raven Queen’s interpretation of the favor involves having them come back to life in the Shadowfell and then if they don’t trigger the event by a certain period of time, throwing them into an impossible encounter to trigger it.)

    Anyway, I now have a new place to come for good DMing advice. Thanks.

  43. John Evans on September 23, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    All right, but if you destroy your entire world and your entire campaign so everyone has to start over, how is that satisfying for anyone? (Spoiler: It isn’t.)

  44. […] a brief three-sentence segment of a book that is over 200 pages long, but it seems to establish a false sense of equivalence in the roles of the DM and his or her players. Later in the section The Dungeon Master (p. 12-13) […]

  45. The DM’s Point of View | XP Bonus on September 3, 2012 at 10:01 am

    […] lesson I learned from another blogger, The Angry DM, is that in order for any fun to be had, failure HAS to be an option. Don’t fudge rolls, take […]

  46. LonePaladin on April 23, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    I’m sharing this one, as it clearly sums up how I try to run my games. Had to do it the old-fashioned way (i.e., cut-and-paste), as your FB Share button seems to insist that I’m trying to share something relating to U2’s Bono.

  47. SowZ37 on May 21, 2013 at 6:12 pm

    I’ve been a DM for a while. I’m known as… a fairly lethal DM in my circles. I average about a PC death a third session. This sounds like a good track record to me, but some people are wide eyed upon hearing it. I think most people are the sugarcoaty DMs, or a death a third session would seem normal. But I consider myself fair. I don’t keep PCs in WBL limits, for example. One campaign the party was, by fifth level, nearly triple their WBL. But that’s because they consistently punched well above their weight class. Often double and once triple their CR. They lost people, and sometimes ran, but when they won they won fairly and I let them have appropriate Risk vs. Reward loot.

    I’ve TPKed once and I can’t count the number of limbs characters have lost even if they survive. But it’s all worth it. It is worth it when, a couple weeks ago, the party won a campaign. They were up against an eldritch abomination style horror that I had NO idea hwo they could kill. A clever plan, some luck, and some really wicked stuff they had done earlier to imprison a lesser abomination in a gun, (that I had very little to do with, all player initiative.) Allowed them to beat the final boss.

    Everyone went into the last session fully expecting a TPK. Only two players of six had their original characters, and all the marbles were on the table. The universe woul be devoured if they failed and three years worth of campaigns in this dimension were about to be wiped out. When they won, the satisfaction was immense. Very emotional, very celebratory, and the epilogue was moving to the players involved. Their characters were worthy of retiring and it felt like it was time to move on to the next campaign.

    Moments like that? I’ve never seen them with easy peasy DMs. I don’t think it is because I am a master storyteller. I think it is because the risk and reward were properly weighed.

  48. Wade on July 26, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    First off this guy’s a windbag….way too much content than needed to get his point across.
    I believe that dice rolls are fate and should never be fudged. Secondly, I believe failure and success both have to be a realistic option.
    Just like anything else in life there has to be a time and place for everything. Balance is best. Sometimes it has to be a goal oriented campaign and other times there needs to be timed campaigns to keep. Either one is ultimately up to the DM’s discretion when the world was developed. Which brings me to my last and most important opinion on this article. During his statements he described D&D as a winnable game for players but when he describes his AngryDM style he admits to putting so many challenges into to campaign that it not only tips the balance for party failure but makes it almost a mission impossible. Once the DM develops a world or is running a pre-determined module they should not alter it to tip the balance. That would be just like fudging the dice rolls. I’ve encountered too many DM’s that have taken sides to one extreme (sissy/angry) or the other. The Sissy trap he explains well but he doesn’t explain the trap of becoming the adversarial or angry DM. Once the DM chooses to be against the party he becomes closed minded and limits the party’s ability to adapt, invent, and overcome. Not everything is explained in the rules….just as in this world, people can invent new ideas and new ways of overcoming obstacles. When a DM is the God of the campaign world and choses to be the party’s adversary in all matters it starts to affect how the DM plays. Just as the AngryDM states …it becomes a point for himself to win. And when you have the power to impose any challenge upon your adversary at will it becomes a very one sided and unfair world to be in… of not just winning or losing but one where moral is always low and becomes not fun at all to be in. I believe in the balance of all things. Sometimes it may be chaotic and lean to one side or the other temporarily but inevitably it has to come back to balance. Otherwise we either have a dictator DM/World with its undue limitations and boring death plot or one which is a subservient DM/world much like a Hollywood storyline and everyone’s a superhero….jmho.–balance is key. ;-)

    • TheAngryDM on July 28, 2013 at 5:29 pm

      I think you missed the entire point of “Build Fair, Play to Win.” Because I said exactly that: compartmentalize. Build fair encounters, build a fair world, and bring that to the game. Do not alter it either for the party or against them when you are running the game. Trust the players to solve the problems you present them with. But when you are playing, play to challenge your players and give them victories they want. If you built your game properly, the deck is almost always stacked against you (the DM). So, playing to win is safe. It keeps you pushing at them.

  49. […] me cuesta perder, en general, que tampoco me gusta hacer perder a otros en mis juegos. Pero leer este artículo sobre ganar en D&D me abrió los ojos. El juego es mucho más disfrutable cuando las cartas están siempre sobre la […]

  50. Brad on June 16, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    I agree that sometimes you have to give some pain for greater satisfaction . . . My gf reminds me very often about how she spent 6 rounds stunned as the party’s tank . . .

    You mention that you don’t change encounters after the are set. I think this makes sense but what if you are short a player due to real life issues? I run a game with 5 to 7 players, one of them being and avid skier and sometimes we play with a person short. Does it make sense to adjust the encounters then?


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